Boston Garden will be rocking tonight, as the Celtics host the Atlanta Hawks in Game 4 of what’s shaping up as a highly competitive—if not particularly well-played first-round series in the NBA playoffs. But when it comes to making the Garden rock and competitive Boston-Atlanta showdowns, surely nothing can match 1988, when the teams staged an epic seven-game battle in the Eastern Conference Finals, capped by a final game that’s now part of NBA lore. In the final hours before tonight’s game, BST&N looks back on the great Celtics-Hawks series of 1988.
The Celtics were an aging dynasty, having won four straight Eastern Conference titles from 1984-87, and winning the NBA title twice in that timespan. But the previous year they had begun to show the effects of age, with the 1987 team being remembered for its raw guts and tenacity in holding on to the Eastern throne. While the Detroit Pistons were the most prominent of the contenders looking to displace Boston, Atlanta wasn’t far behind.
Boston went 57-25 and posted the conference’s best record. They easily won what was a bad Atlantic Division at the time, outpacing the Washington Bullets by nineteen games. The Central Division (the conferences were then aligned into two divisions each) produced the 2 thru 6 teams in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket and the first three of those—Detroit, Atlanta and Chicago—won 50 games.
With the conference becoming deeper and requiring more extended playoff runs—Boston’s five-man team looked woefully shallow. The starters all averaged over 30 minutes a game. None of the reserves averaged as many as twenty. Of course when your starters are named Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson, you can still go a long way. Larry Legend averaged thirty a night. McHale was good for 23 ppg, and both he and Parish crashed the boards. Ainge was a top playmaker, with DJ able to contribute offensively and play lockdown defense. With sufficient rest they could beat anyone—a theme that sounds oddly familiar as we get ready to again watch the 2012 Celtics—but how far could the vets carry them.